Tuesday, 16 March 2010

In times of the Phoenicians, Cártama used to be called Cartha, a name meaning “hidden city.” In this foggy, rainy morning, I can understand why. The Chapel of Virgen de los Remedios, rising 300 metres above sea level, is wrapped in thick fog. The walls of the old castle seem to be made of cotton. There’s a mystic, ethereal touch to this town that is also a gate to the Guadalhorce Valley.

Deceitful Cártama

Cártama is a deceitful town: although we can see ever-present architectural signs of progress, the old heart beats inside the town, winding roads hinting at an eventful history. Each beat links modern Cártama to antiquity, and the deeper you go into the town, the thicker the air gets, as if the mirror of the past had left an indelible mark there. I drove into a series of concentric circles as modern buildings and streets cut with a scalpel give way to twisting streets and old constructions. I parked in the town square, by the Church of San Pedro Apóstol. From there, the Chapel of Virgen de los Remedios seemed like a lookout keeping watch of everything and everybody from above. The church door was open, so I walked in. The temple was built under the rule of the Catholic Monarchs in the sixteenth century, using the foundations of an old mosque. Some of the Mudéjar elements have come down to us. “The church has a nave and two aisles, separated by arches supported by rectangular columns. The nave has a wooden ceiling; its high altar houses a Crucified Christ of the early twentieth century,” the information reads. The interior is simple. The columns are trimmed with decorative details and the high altar is incredibly austere. Above, the coffered ceiling is a beautiful wooden structure with flower motifs. The silence in the church was broken by a murmuring woman at prayer at the back. After lighting up a candle, I looked at the praying woman. She was in a small room that seemed to be a burial place, with recesses on both walls displaying family names. I went out and walked to the higher part of town, stopping at the door of a private home whose owner sold postcards and photographs, scapulars, rosaries, and other religious souvenirs over a makeshift counter. I bought my usual postcard and used the counter as my desk, while I chatted with the woman. I chose to write my postcard there for the rain could damage it otherwise. There was a postbox in the square. Cártama’s houses climbed up the mountain slopes. As I got higher, I got wider views of the Guadalhorce Valley and La Hoya de Málaga, peppered with fruit trees. On rainy days, Cártama and the valley look mysterious. Maybe they served as a source of inspiration to present-day minstrel José González Marín, whose improvised poems and songs have gone beyond Cártama’s boundaries. Born in Cártama in 1889, González Marín died in his homeland in 1956. He was friends with Rafael Alberti and Salvador Rueda, and rubbed shoulders with international artists. He was decorated with the Isabel la Católica medal of honour for saving the image of our Lady of Remedies from the flames during the Spanish Civil War. There’re lots of stories about González Marín. You can read some of them in the article “El juglar olvidado.” From the town square, where I’d been to the Church of San Pedro Apóstol, I walked up to Pilar Alto, an old fountain built in 1872 and renovated in 1976. Although a sign indicated the fountain didn’t supply drinking water, I saw a woman filling a 5l bottle. “Isn’t this going to make you sick?,” I asked, “The sign here says it isn’t drinking water.” “I’ve been drinking this water all my life, son, and I’ve never fallen ill,” she replied. I didn’t add a word. After all, experience is the best teacher.

The Chapel of Virgen de los Remedios

Behind Pilar Alto, there was the road leading up to the Chapel of Virgen de los Remedios and the castle. You can only get there on foot (although I was to find a trick later). It was a cobblestone road with steps making the climb more bearable. Climbing up is quite a feat –you have to be on the mood–, but the views are worth it. In fact, it was a mentally rather than physically tiresome endeavour. There were information panels with interesting data, such as the story of the Abencerrajes –a story of love and friendship between Moors and Christians in times of war, a story of honour and valour, of keeping one’s word. I stopped every few steps to take in the landscape, all covered in fog. Slowly but steadily, I came to the top. My reward was an amazing skyline. I made out the Guadalhorce Valley at my feet. I imagined the spectacular views on a clear day and pictured it in my head: Málaga to the right (south); Álora and Pizarra ahead (east); Casarabonela and the first slopes of Sierra de las Nieves to the left (north). However, I could only see fog and mist. I walked into the chapel –a small yet baroque temple whose high altar boasted a small-sized statue of Virgen de los Remedios. From the entrance to the left, there were offerings and requests –scapulars, mementos, rosaries, crosses, new and old photographs. Many of the devotees look really young. Looking at the pictures made me shudder. In the vestry, two old men and a younger one were talking about orders and prices, candles and images. I found it wise to leave so, sheltered under my umbrella, I walked to the castle. It was very easy to get there. There was a panel outside the chapel itself. A flagstone path flanked by a wooden handrail surrounded the mountain where the ruins were located. According to the panel, the castle was 200m away. The castle itself couldn’t be seen, for it was being rehabilitated, but the area gave me an idea of its importance. It was a huge building sitting atop a hill, the rocks around doubling as a defensive wall. A couple of towers and several interior and exterior wall sections were still standing. Touring the place I discovered the trick to reach the chapel without using the steep climb that links it to the town centre. In the back of the castle, there were two country roads that can be used by drivers leading to the heart of Cártama. One of them rolled down amidst blossoming almond trees; the other cut across a bunch of homes. If you came from behind and parked your car there, you could avoid the climb. But you’d also be missing the great views on your way to the chapel.

Bidding Farewell

On coming back, I sat under the shade of a tree. It was raining; the ground was wet, giving off strong old primary smells. The Guadalhorce Valley before us. I fancied field workers looking up at the sky and giving thanks for the rain with a smile, for it’d help crops grow. I pulled up my collar and shook the water out of my raincoat. I could go on enjoying this landscape for a long, long time.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

What to see: Cártama’s scattered population centres: Besides the town centre, there’re several population centres in this township. The largest one is Estación de Cártama (which originated out of the train station built in 1865). Then there’re El Sexmo, Doña Ana, Aljaima, and Sierra de Gibralgalia.
Roman ruins: Different ruin sites bear witness to the settlement of multiple civilisations. You can still see the arches of a Roman aqueduct or a 1752 boundary cross showing the figures of a population census. The floor plan of the Church of San Pedro Apóstol is Arab in origin, and its tower, although built in 1834, rests on the foundations of an old minaret. These are all examples of Cártama’s having been –and still being– at the crossroads.
What to eat: Try sopa cachorreña and Cártama-style pie. Cártama is also famous for its wide array of traditionally made pork products.
Useful links: In this tour I’ve relied on the websites of the Costa del Sol Tourist Board and Cártama Town Hall for information.

Comments, suggestions, and opinions from travellers/ visitors to this blog are very welcome. See you under the Bright Blue Sky.